By REBECCA CATALANELLO
People, cameras and props were crammed into the modest two-story Bucktown house. It was July and the upstairs rooms were registering 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
Local filmmaker and University of New Orleans alumnus Paul Catalanotto had 11 days to shoot his feature-length horror movie, “Sacrilege,” a screenplay about a demonic music box that he and his wife co-wrote with a UNO graduate student.
On the upside, Catalanotto was working with the largest cast and crew he’d ever directed—about 40 people altogether after the extras showed up. About 20 of them were film students from UNO willing to work on the crew for experience, exposure and, if the movie sells, class credit.
On the downside, well, the heat.
Alaina Boyett, a graduate student working toward her MFA in film production, could see the smoldering temperatures and the buzzing set affecting her work.
As production designer for “Sacrilege,” Boyett was in charge of dressing every room in the house for upcoming scenes. But as people moved from place to place inside the house, they would disrupt the set in little and not-so-little ways, requiring her and her team to go back and fix it again and again.
Then there was the food: Nonperishable props were disintegrating faster than she’d planned.
“I learned from the get-go to delegate tasks,” Boyett remembers.
It was the kind of hands-on learning that could never be duplicated in a classroom.
For Boyett, 28, and other crew members, the chance to collaborate with Catalanotto (MFA, ’09) gave them a rare chance to step into positions of significant responsibility on a larger-budget production while learning from professionals. It may have been close quarters, but it was a movie that, some believe, has a good chance of having some commercial success.
Catalanotto’s first feature-length horror film “Proof of the Devil” (2014) sold nationally and internationally. Produced by Rohan Dhurandhar and distributed by a company called Genesis, the movie is available from WalMart, Amazon and other commercial outlets. At one point, it was advertised in New York City’s Times Square.
Catalanotto then sold the screenplay for “Proof of the Devil” sequel, which is being directed by Louisiana filmmaker Jason Hewitt and will be distributed by the same company. He says he has loved watching Hewitt’s work on the movie—and he’s excited to see the outcome, since he crammed everything he wanted to do but couldn’t afford to do in the first movie into its sequel.
Soon after, Catalanotto decided it was time to make a movie that would be truly his own—one he would write, direct and produce. That’s where “Sacrilege” came in. He and wife Mary Catalanotto started writing and brainstorming before turning to Mark Twain Williams, a UNO screenwriting graduate student, for help.
“You know, in the other one (“Proof of the Devil”), I had the comfort of Rohan producing,” Catalanotto says. “That was his baby. What he wanted was how I did it. I wanted to do something where that was really my stamp.”
Cinematographer Hamp Overton, a UNO film professor, was intrigued by Catalanotto’s plan to make “Sacrilege.”
Overton had been Catalanotto’s major professor and knew his work. He was impressed by the commercial success of “Proof of the Devil,” given its modest budget and size. That film was made with about seven to 10 crew members and a cast of seven.
“If you want to make another film,” Overton says he told Catalanotto, “maybe we could get students involved.”
UNO’s film and theatre department usually offers a “Spring Film” class during Spring Break, one that gives students a chance to work side-by-side with professionals on a short production—a screenplay about 15 pages long. The advantage of offering the class during the break was that students could have full access to all of the department’s equipment for the purposes of that production. But when the University shortened its Spring Break to three days in 2015, Spring Film was put on hold.
If “Sacrilege” could be shot in the summer, Overton suggested, the film department could fill in that gap, give students even deeper experience on a 90-page feature film, while also connecting them with mentors and helping an alumnus on what promised to be a fun production.
Catalanotto,37, a Hammond resident, had been a lifelong fan of horror flicks. Growing up in Natalbany, La., just outside of Hammond, he and his mother made regular treks to the local theaters. And she was the one, he says, who turned him on to scary movies. He watched “Nightmare on Elm Street” at age 6 or 7 with his family gathered around him, and kept looking for more.
Even though Catalanotto has managed to carve out a living as a freelance filmmaker by making commercials, music videos and documentaries, his desire to portray the supernatural in a storytelling form has never subsided. In 2013, he even won a Christian Country Music Award for a video he produced for area Christian artist Hunter Erwin. Though Catalanotto considers himself religious, he sees no paradox in his fascination with fear.
“I think that’s why I like horror films so much,” he says. “I like the idea that there’s an afterlife and people I love are somewhere happy. So, scary movies, even though it’s a darker side of that, kind of play to that aspect too.”
Overton himself had never before worked on a horror movie. He saw the prospect as liberating: “Who wouldn’t want to work on a horror film?” he says. “People aren’t watching it for a message about world affairs. They’re watching it to get scared and have fun.”
When Overton and Catalanotto started approaching students to gauge their interest, they kept discovering other closeted horror film fans.
Rebecca Llorella, 29, was one. Llorella was preparing to graduate in May 2015 when Overton asked her if she might be interested in working on the production.
Llorella had been a stand-out undergraduate. Graduate students called on her to staff their films. She was organized, hard-working and eager to get more experience. She could make a great second assistant director, Overton and Catalanotto thought—someone who could help the first assistant director organize the logistics of the shoot: times, locations, costumes, production report logs, making sure actors were happy and finding extras.
Plus, Llorella says, “I do love horror films.”
Like Catalanotto and even Boyett, Llorella says she grew up seeking movies with fright. Boyett loved the grit of movies like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” And Llorella says she was drawn to all sorts of frightening cinema: “The Excorcist,” “Halloween” and the chainsaw movies, among them.
Llorella never before had the opportunity to have so much responsibility on a film of this size. She jumped at the chance to work with Catalanotto on her first feature and her first horror film.
“It gave me a boost,” she says. “It was definitely very, very exciting working with these professionals.”
In addition to connecting Catalanotto with the students from his summer class, Overton volunteered himself as a cinematographer on the project. And thanks to a grant UNO’s film department receives from the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) to support mentor relationships, Overton involved other pros like Bill McCord and Stefan Solea in the class and production. Several other UNO alumni like well-known camera operator Loui J. Leroy provided their expertise for their project.
Catalanotto said he was blown away by the work the students did when they showed up at the set in Bucktown. Students served as camera operators. They were on sound. They were production assistants. They did makeup, design and more.
“I guess the best thing to say is they did everything,” Catalanotto says. “Everything but direct or write.”
Students and Overton also noticed something about Catalanotto. In some ways, he may have been the perfect candidate for this project. As a director, they say, he was incredibly attentive to the needs of the cast and crew. He was prepared and ready. He kept all but one day to the standard 12 hours. There was no yelling or screaming. On one occasion, he rewrote a scene to accommodate the schedule of an actor who had a conflicting audition. And he often sought input of the folks who were giving their time to be there—whether they were new to the industry or not.
“He cared about everybody. To the point that sometimes, you were like, ‘Hey, Paul, focus on the film a little,’” says Overton with a laugh.
Catalanotto says he did all he could do to stick to schedule in part because he was inspired by the students’ investment.
“I just didn’t want to worry about these kids working crazy hours with me and then driving home,” he says. “They were giving me their all already and I didn’t want to ask for more. And so we kept it in 12 hours … regardless if I wanted another shot or not.”
Llorella says the exposure and access she got working on “Sacrilege” is tangible. Leroy, for example, recently contacted her about a project. “It gave me a boost,” she says. “We worked with people who have been in the industry a long time. Being able to talk to them and gain access to them was incredible.”
Boyett, who expects to receive her MFA in May, says the challenge and pace involved in working on “Sacrilege” simultaneously stressed her out and solidified her ambitions of working in the film industry—and, specifically in the art department. It was exactly the kind of experience she said she came to UNO to receive.
“It was definitely a challenge, but overall a very rewarding experience that really let me sink my teeth into filmmaking,” she says.
Catalanotto spent the past spring putting the final touches on “Sacrilege.”
In the meantime, he kept up with the freelance work that he considers his bread and butter—work for which he says UNO’s comprehensive film program more than prepared him. Catalanotto graduated from UNO’s film program with a 4.0, but he skipped graduation for a freelance filmmaking gig.
“What I learned at UNO is how to do it myself. You go to a lot of programs and you don’t get to touch the equipment if that’s not your discipline,” he says. “UNO has a different approach. They want you to experience all the facets of it. And because I got to try all aspects of filmmaking, I got to be pretty well rounded. That allowed me to be successful as a self-employed freelancer.”
Catalanotto has one more reason he says he’s grateful for UNO. In his final year of his master’s program, he met the woman who would go on to become his wife.
Now, with “Sacrilege” in its final stages, Catalanotto hopes he will owe UNO even more.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the University of New Orleans Magazine, Spring 2016 edition.